The Archaic and “Masculine” Beauty: A Review of the Film ‘White Silk Dress’ (Áo lụa Hà Đông) by Tini Ngatini

Image of Vietnamese schoolgirls wearing white áo dài from a postcard

“My mother said a white silk dress is a symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips; but by the elegant laps of a white silk dress.”

 

Embedded in the above closing statement from the film White Silk Dress  (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is an illustration of how sacrifice, which Keenan said in the Question of Sacrifice, is understood in our society as necessary passage to, in this particular case, beauty and a new life in general. While it alludes to the popular idea of beauty which rest its criterion on physical appearance, the idea of beauty the film tries to convey is the one I call archaic and masculine, which we tend to forget for one reason or another.

The White Silk Dress (2006)

Set against a backdrop of poverty, the film offers a demeaning portrayal of female education, women’s rights and woman in general. Although the film is set in during the late French colonial rule of Viet Nam, such issues continue to persist during the film maker’s time and nowadays, and doubtless spurred Director Luu Huynh; a Vietnamese-American who is known to advocate the rights women and other disadvantaged groups, to make this film. In this film he clearly urges the public to be mindful of the plight of the under-privileged groups, while at the same time rejecting a narrative of  inescapable victimhood by reminding those groups that they are; despite their societal disadvantages, capable of changing the course of their life histories.

The film focuses on three women: Mrs. Dan and her two daughters, Anh and Flood; and much of the narrative portrays their struggles to maintain the precious áo dài, a white silk Vietnamese national dress. The dress is precious for several reasons. Firstly, it is an historical embodiment of Vietnamese values, especially modesty, which is often signified in some religious traditions through the form of dress code. Secondly, in the case of the film, the dress was a gift for Mrs. Dan from her boyfriend Gu, a fellow servant who asked her to marry him in front of a Buddha statue. It was on that unconsecrated wedding night that Gu gave Mrs Dan the white silk dress. Not long after their unofficial marriage, Gu’s master was assassinated by anti-French mobs. Worried for their lives, they fled to the South of Vietnam and resided in the city of Hoi An, where they raised their daughters. At this point, the dress now constitutes the only precious property of the family.

The journey to keep the dress began with Anh and Flood’s teacher who asked them to wear silk dress to school just like other students. Not having money to buy the dress material, Mrs. Dan tried to borrow money from a wealthy lady in their neighborhood. Instead her request was rejected and Mrs. Dan was insulted for her poverty. She then received and accepted an offer to breastfeed a very wealthy elderly man. This plan did not work either; her husband found out and deplored it as a “whore-like” act. Finally, Mrs. Dan sacrificed her only white silk dress, cutting it up to make a new one for her daughters.

The challenges, however, did not stop there. The family needed to risk their lives twice to save the dress from fire when American troops bombed the city. They lost her daughter Anh in the war and later Mrs. Dan drowned  when the river where they look for snails to sell flooded.

The film ends with the end of the war, with Flood wearing the dress and uttering her experience of living the philosophy behind her mother’s remark that their countless hardships and horrific experiences resulted in the maintenance of the beauty of that dress. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty.

Struggle is what make these women beautiful, even in the absence of the ability to whiten their skin or to redden cheeks and lips, which remains the popular trend in South East Asia to this day. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips. But to Mrs. Dan, beauty is not only defined by such external qualities. Instead, her idea of beauty is rather Hegelian; in that it is understood as the ability to engage with life’s difficult moments and yet find oneself stronger at the end. Thus, it comes as no surprise that she sees the dress as a tangible symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity, which resulted in the elegant laps of a white silk dress. This vision of beauty through suffering, and an unwavering belief that toil and hardship can, or should produce something of beautiful is optimistically applied to her children, who she believes could attain a better social situation if only they can strive to gain an education.

This idea of beauty through cathartic struggle is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel alluded that life [or beauty] emerges as a result of “looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” The negative can loosely be understood as things which potentially refrain us from achieving our ultimate goals, ranging from concerns as seemingly trivial as procrastination to other more significant obstacles to happiness. Tarrying with it, then, means defeating such stumbling blocks, or simply sacrificing short term goals for the sake of long term one. Thus, once we have defeated this negative, we can expect a glow that emanates from us as the result of being-ness, or life that has manifested itself in us, as Hegel would say. In this light, we can see that beauty, as it is presented to our eyes is actually a result of a herculean battle against those things [the negative] which prevent “beauty” from entering into our lives. Even for the most delicate flower, its beauty [or life] comes from its wrestling with the fear of pain inherent in blossoming, as Anais Nin puts it. At this point, it’s safe to say that Hegelian beauty is very much characterized by struggle or “tarrying with the negative”; indeed, Hegelian beauty is predicated upon, and cannot be achieved without this painful exertion of effort and will.

This “tarrying with the negative” as the precondition of existence is also what our ancestors believed to be the way to freedom from the private life of the household & family, as discussed in Arendt’s The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the ancients thought emancipating oneself from private life is important because this private realm is ruled by bodily needs, essential for individual maintenance and survival of the species. Accordingly, everybody within this realm is constantly enslaved by labor, either to meet others’ need, or their own. Also, to achieve these corporeal ends, the use of violence and force is acceptable. Thus, the ancients advised people to move on to the political life of public sphere which is reserved for equal and free folks. This move is also characterized by Hegel’s tarrying with the negative.

To the ancients this “tarrying with the negative” means making sure that one has mastered their own bodily needs already, so that they might be capable of ascending to higher planes of consciousness and being. For those who have the means to meet their bodily needs without labor or toil, as in the case of those born within propertied family or people who receive external financial support this end is of course more readily attainable.

Nowadays of course, as my sounding board friend Fitzpatrick reminded me, many people have escaped the tyranny of those bodily pressures of “private life” described by Arendt (the need for food, clothing and shelter) by getting a job and surrendering much their free time to corporate wage slavery. To him, this modern alternative offers for most of us; in addition to protection from starvation and death from exposure, a shallow (albeit demeaning) imitation of “public life”, in so far as we are able to work hard and potentially move up within the capitalist system towards a role that entails a decision-making capacity. However, he added, this piecemeal form of “mastery” creates new problems that mirror those that faced our ancestors in surprising ways. For example, a skilled subsistence farmer could be in control of their own destiny, only to have their designs scuppered by drought or flood; similarly, an obedient wage slave may find that the fickle winds of the market, or other economic fluctuations have left them homeless and hungry. Even when capitalism has consistently provided one with the means to live comfortably, consumerism in turn provides us with a galaxy of seductive products to literally consume the fruits of one’s labor, which might otherwise allow one the time to focus on things, other than bodily needs, such as self-realization through art or education, which supposedly benefits the doer and other people.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, the mastery task has never been easy – especially in our days. Therefore, it’s no surprise that character Mrs. Dan in this film did not fully escape from private life herself.

Yet, I see it as no reason to dismiss Mrs. Dan’s achievement as not fitting the category of Hegelian beauty, although my former professor argued otherwise. I assert that Hegel would have agreed with calling it Hegelian beauty; as he himself stated that the course of spirit [being/life] to itself is not a straightforward matter; it is instead a gradual process. In each stage of development, one does achieve something meaningful [or beautiful].

Yet, Hegel warned, one must expose that transitional achievement to constant examination and revision so as to keep moving. Only by doing so, we can get closer to the final goal: full self-manifestation. If we ponder on our own journey to become somebody we desire to be, we could see this gradual nature of this process. Before we can complete each transition, for instance, in the case of physical beauty and self-development, we must ensure that we have managed to address all physical beauty flaws and psychological baggage we have been carrying. Yet, as we grow, we keep examining what else to work on; what cosmetic beauty could we use to address, for example, our wrinkles; what psychological technique might help with newly discovered issue. Another example of the often difficult struggle for self-development come from the figures of Jain women, as anthropologist Whitney Kelting documented in Heroic Wives Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood. They are similar to the character Mrs. Dan in that they occupied and attempted to be free from private life. Yet, they did not make it. Nonetheless, their fellow Jains see [Hegelian] beauty in their existing achievement and, in turn, built temple as remembrance of their attempts and achievements. They worship these women for those achievements, and now these women serve as a reminder for others that the struggle towards self-manifestation and the attainment of spiritual beauty is a never-ending one.

Improved social status, or even having temples built in ones honor (like those Saint women of Jainism) and other more humble forms of life comfort were indeed sometimes the reward one could gain for the herculean struggle of renouncing private life, which required “courage” and, was thus considered a “political virtue” back then. In the past, supposedly most of them who were able to make it to escape private life and move into public realm were men and, thus, the life [or beauty] that comes out of it is often characterized by traits of masculinity. In addition, as my professor reminded me, patriarchy invariably defined women’s social roles “as enslaved, and thus defined female beauty, and for that matter courage, as submission to and acceptance of that enslavement.”

Nonetheless, the thought that beauty is closely tied to pain is far from new, because even the beauty defined by outer appearances is built on hidden foundations of pain and sacrifice. This includes the pain inherent in waxing, manicures, pedicures and other beauty care today, including exercise and body sculpting or wearing foot-numbing spike heels. Furthermore, as my professor recalled, in the past feminine beauty has required such practices as foot-binding, tight-laced corsets, and poisonous cosmetics. Supposedly one cannot fully escape from the economic idea that everything has its price; and more generally one must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains for any kind of long term or final progress we desire to attain in the course of our lives.

In White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông), we see the character Mrs. Dan willing to put herself through difficult situations: giving up her desire for her own material beauty, accepting the humiliation of breastfeeding an elderly man, and ultimately sacrificing her precious dress. This is because she sees being educated as one of beauty’s essential features, something that can potentially change her family’s life in future.  Of course, her conception of beauty is subjective, much influenced by her life circumstances. Yet, the fact that beauty requires elements of sacrifice is pervasive; and this moral of “No pain, no gain”, in whatever capacity, is doubtless applicable to our own individual journeys towards self-manifestation and “beauty.”

 

 

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What is the United States of America? by Wes Bishop

 

“Has it been like this in the past or is this something new?” my friend Pádraig asked.

We were sitting in one of the coffee shops close to Purdue’s campus, and around us I could hear the familiar chatter one associates with a café that caters to college students, professors, and artsy town folks. For the past three years Podge and I have had a standing coffee date where we mostly discussed the field of history, and where we were in our respective research projects. But on that day intermixed with the chatter of planning the upcoming fall semester, I could hear the words “Virginia,” “Nazi,” and “Antifa” swirling about the tables as if it were an espresso machine mixing seemingly unrelated ingredients together in an uncomfortable froth.

It was the Wednesday following the white supremacist rally and neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several pro-democracy protesters were injured, one was dead. And Lafayette, Indiana, like much of the rest of the country, was discussing what it meant.

“Yes and no,” I answered. Three years earlier, Podge had immigrated to the US from Ireland. He was somewhat familiar with American history, but it was not his primary research focus.

I explained to Podge that such attacks and demonstrations of white supremacy were, in fact (and unfortunately), not unprecedented in US history.

As I explained the history of the US, framing it as a larger project of British imperialism that made use of (and in many ways created) white supremacy to justify the white English speaking people’s conquest of North America, I remembered back to the class I had just finished teaching for the summer. It was the first half of US history, and as I explained to Podge the long, sordid history of events like Bacon’s Rebellion, American slavery and apartheid, and the southern Confederacy, all the previous lectures I had just finished flashed through my mind.

Throughout the class I had encouraged my students to think of the first period of US history, roughly the 1600s to 1860s, as a period which provided a way for us in the present to understand how nations formed.

“What is nationalism?” I asked in several lectures. “It is an imagined community, a social and cultural space in history that gives rise to a sense of shared purpose, identity, and cause.”

(Benedict Anderson, obviously, had been the honorary theorist for the semester)

“But how does that shared identity and community work,” I asked in one lecture, “if the US is built on, and perpetuates, a system of white colonial settlerism?”

The easy answer would be to say that the US national project was unachievable, that any push for democracy or revolutionary change in the US context was impossible at best, a dream meant to dupe the naïve at its worse.

But, as I explained through the course, such a cynical reading of American history erased the very people who had been subjected to that colonial hierarchy, and who had fought, resisted, and rebelled against it. From the Enclosure Acts, to the forced removals of Indigenous Americans, to chattel slavery of Africans, peoples on multiple continents had been brutalized and resisted the broader rise of global capitalism in the Atlantic World. Rebellions, “Frontier” Wars, and uprisings were as much a part of the early history of the United States as was the history of upper class colonial rule. In so far as the US was a civilization dedicated to revolution, liberty, and democratic equality, it was such a society because of those who fought back and rejected the broader project of imperialism.

My major point for the course, therefore, was that at the very heart of American national identity sat a deadly contradiction, one that had never been fully addressed.

“Understand that,” I explained to the class, “and you will understand the rest of US history. We are a national community based on high ideals of equality, self-determination, and a democratic political ethos. But the US was also born out of white supremacy and imperialism, and that history is just as important as any democratic ideal.”

A revolutionary democracy and a colonial settler state. A dichotomy that generated historic conflict, and which framed US history. This understanding drew a bloody red line from Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 to the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Once I finished explaining it, how Richard Spencer and company misused history to falsely claim that whites had been “noble” explorers “taming” the “New” world, Podge sat for a moment quietly taking it in.

“So,” he said at last, thinking about his own home of Ireland, “it’s all the fucking British Empire’s fault.”

“God save the queen,” I replied dryly.

+++

Prior to the fascist terrorist attack in Virginia I had already planned on organizing my survey classes by asking a series of overarching questions that would hopefully lead to a broader understanding about past and present periods, and what had led to our current moment.

Modern World History, 1490-2000s would focus on the question “What is modernity?” and would use the class to get students to understand that the concept of “modernity” was in large part a socio-political ideology which argued for a certain trajectory of historical development.

The two other sections, History 151: US History Until 1877 and History 152: US History From 1877, would deal with the question “What is a nation?” and “What is democracy?” respectfully.

This pedagogical approach would steer my survey classes away from the typical slog of facts, figures, and dates most textbooks followed, and instead encourage the students to see history as a complex and everchanging conversation between the past and our own present period. But in order to do this I first needed to frame the classes as a conversation, and not a few weeks of me preaching an established set of information. Instead, for the conversation to take place, we would need to begin with a basic question, the first step in any process of learning via dialogue.

By understanding that modernity is a political ideology, students would be able to question the entire project of our current civilization, one that many in power want to convince them is a steady march toward unending, automatic, progress. Next, by asking what historically is the basis of a modern nation they would see how events that occurred in the past radiated into our own period, informing the very way we relate to one another on a cultural, social, political, and economic basis. And finally, after having seen that an ideology of modernity created an unquestioning faith in progress, and that this “progress” helped sustain the very white supremacist colonial project at the heart of US nationalism, students would be able to take a third class that completed the exercise by asking “What is democracy?” exactly, and as a result begin seeing that the social, political, and economic movements to win dignity, power, and security for people were a broader historical project to alter society and move beyond history’s longer shadow.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but the hope is that once I am working full time as a college instructor, students would be able to take all three of the survey courses and develop a broader set of historical skills and comprehension.

It is a set of skills that I think are vital for us in the present. After Podge and I finished our coffee and he headed out, I began reading for a project I was working on, and couldn’t help but overhear the two men behind me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Antifa,” the first guy said.

“Yep,” the other answered.

“I mean, look, I am against the Nazis, but Antifa just goes too far.”

“What? Why?” the second guy asked.

“Well, you know… they destroy property and stuff,” anti-Antifa guy answered.

“Fuck that shit,” the pro-Antifa guy responded. “That is neoliberal bullshit. Property? Who gives a fuck. Nazis are talking about genocide, literally murdering people, and society wants me to think some business’ profit is the most important thing to worry about? Antifa is fighting to try and stop these fascist pricks from getting more power. If the state did what it was supposed to do, then Antifa wouldn’t even need to exist.”

I went back to taking notes. Online and on campus the sentiments expressed by the two friends arguing over “Antifa” were nothing new. Antifa was literally just the “antifascist movement,” but it was typically meant to designate the more radical anarchist street groups who engaged in direct militant actions, such as physically fighting back against the fascists in places like Virginia. Antifa was getting more attention as their tactics to intimidate and stop Nazis gained more attention, and were credited by people like Cornel West with having saved lives.

The two friends continued to argue some more, mostly about what was most effective in stopping the spread of fascism, but instead of focusing on the anti-Antifa guy, I was genuinely curious about the pro-Antifa friend. Although perhaps not a majority, he was voicing something that I was finding to be a growing opinion.

Fascism is evil. Those who fight it should not be chastised, but thanked.

Again, it got back to what I hoped would be achieved by asking students to ask the broader question, “What is democracy?” By showing them that past actors had been forced to fight, sometimes with force, for basic rights they would hopefully see that US history wasn’t predetermined with the “good guys” being endorsed by society at large. Instead, activism in all periods had been met with some form of opposition, be it government, religion, or corporations. Therefore, activism then and now, was not about automatically being on “the right side of history” but instead it was a longer engagement with society to win major concessions to expand democracy, centering sovereignty and dignity in the individual, and not government power.

Democracy is therefore a way of life, and as such it is more than a political system to delineate power. It is, in simple terms, an ethical and moral outlook that imbues the people of a given community with automatic and inalienable rights. These rights are normative claims that position the individual as a being deserving of dignity. We afford these rights to one another not out of fear that someone may eventually try to harm us, or because humans are alienated individuals who must go it alone, but because as ethical actors we acknowledge that beings have a fundamental dignity to help guide and shape the community we share. In other words, democratic rights serve a dual purpose of empowering an individual and bolstering a democratic civilization.

Democracy, in other words, is not apolitical. It is not an arena where “anything goes,” and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a “marketplace of ideas” where popularity alone determines the validity of a principle. It is a socially constructed sphere where we engage in meaningful dialogue, decision making, and self-exploration so as to improve ourselves, our societies, and our collective knowledge.

One could not trust the weight of “modernity” to carry this forward, anymore than one could assume the relations of a modern nation would sooth over continuing issues of oppression. Only through conscious effort to expand the democratic sphere, pulling out of history’s death grip gravitational pull, could people in a particular period hope to better themselves and future generations.

As such, not all political views are compatible with democracy. Some are, in fact, anti-democratic. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Fascism is anti-democratic. Religiously based terrorism is anti-democratic.

Therefore, when people fight authoritarians, or fascists, or religious extremists especially in the cases where those ideologies have a historic legacy of hegemonic power, then the person in question is not “just as bad” because they fought. Fighting and resisting evil is not itself evil.

The the Antifa, BLM, and left-wing socialists and liberals are not evil for fighting Nazis.

Decades of reducing historic understanding to shitty B-movies where John Wayne strutted around on camera talking about “fighting the bad guy” has produced a widespread ethical outlook that simultaneously celebrates violence when it is the US military blowing things up, while shrieking in terror when people organize and protest actual Nazis.

In fact, one could argue that the celebration of such American figures, like John Wayne, has not just produced a confused ethical outlook on violence, but has in fact created a cultural script that normalizes certain types of violence, even celebrating violence when it is violence in service to the broader imperial project of the United States. As we all know, the western portions of North America were not “settled” in any real sense of the word by English speaking colonists. Indigenous people had long lived in the multiple areas the US eventually claimed as territories. Yet even beyond this, the Spanish, French, and Latin Americans had a long standing presence in these areas, in some instances dating back centuries.

That history is still present in the very words we speak.

Los Vegas. Los Angeles. Baton Rogue. New Orleans. Santa Barbara.

All of this makes the present day cultural essentialists, freaking out about multiculturalism and multilingualism, all the more ridiculous.

The US discovered nothing, no matter how one looks at it, in its economic and geographic expansion. Instead, the “settling” of the West was really an incorporation of these areas into the East coast’s rising industrial corporate capitalism. In so doing, the US established a multicultural sprawling empire that had a bizarre relationship with violence as a political and economic tool.

Violence in the expansion West? This is typically treated in many mainstream understanding as just an unfortunate by product of a “clash of civilizations,” as unavoidable as a planet’s gravitational pull.

Violence used against foreign governments, such as the US’s use of violence in the Allied cause against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism? That is not only tolerated, but is in fact celebrated, with movies, monuments, and holidays dedicated to the organized violence the US deployed.

How, then, can the current inhabitants of a country like the United States, especially those who take part in celebrating and honoring certain expressions of violence, retreat in terror when they hear groups make the argument that white supremacists and fascists need to be forcibly opposed?

A movement, such as the fascist movement in modern America, is fundamentally anti-democratic. As such, if that movement were to ever gain widespread power (and take a hard long look at many elected officials to see how possible that is) then the very democracy we say we cherish would be destroyed.

To further illustrate how ridiculous saying fascists have democratic rights, imagine the following:

We do not debate whether or not Christians should be put to death, just as we do not have a dialogue over how many rights we are going to strip from heterosexuals, just as we do not have a friendly discussion over how many white people will be murdered after the next election. To entertain any of these ideas, especially in a political movement, would be met with alarm and terror. And that is the cognitive disconnect many white people have when they say “Nazis have a right to march and try and convince people in the public sphere.” It reeks of privilege, because for the white person there is no widespread danger that should the fascists succeed they would be harmed. Their nation, their imagined community can survive it. In fact, it was built on that very delusion.

In other words, it walks up to the question, “What is democracy?” and fails miserably to answer it.

Now, granted, even the white liberal and conservative would not be safe should fascism ever succeed. Fascism is never content with just a moderate amount of power, since as an authoritarian movement it believes in stripping the individual of any and all dignity (i.e destroying democracy). Only those with the savagery to will themselves to power via violence are to be respected. Compassion and tolerance are weaknesses to them, and that is the world the white moderate would permit to come into existence by tolerating fascists to first be normalized, and then gain power. It is why the pro-democracy movements have been so vital in US history, and it is why I hoped that by being able to answer the question “What is democracy?” historically, students would have a basis for a usable past to construct ethical and meaningful actions in their own lives once they left the classroom.

Perhaps that is far too naïve on my part, but it is what I hope nonetheless.

+++

The day after the fascist rally and white supremacist attacks in Virginia, Allison and I went to the vigil activists in Lafayette had planned. We met at Riehle Plaza with hundreds of other community members to protest and resist both what had happened in Virginia, and what was happening in the larger Trumplandia, USA.

To put it in perspective: It took months of planning for the American Nazis to get only 500 people to the University of Virginia. Yet, in less than 48 hours after their vile acts, over 700 counter marches sprung up around the country. This obviously does not equate to an automatic victory, but it shows that those committed to justice, equality, and democracy are not weak or few. We, as denizens of this moment, have the ability to change the world and move beyond the US’s long shadow of hate and oppression, be it a shadow cast by history, the current President, or a statue of a Confederate general.

Of course, current attitudes are not permanent, and over time this broad support could evaporate.

But this is a concern that is far from new. To me, the issue of opposing fascism is not some “new” issue that we are suddenly charged with undertaking. Instead, it speaks to a much longer history in the US of struggling to define exactly what “The United States of America” means as a civilization, a nation, and a historic political culture. Much of the work of what that antifascist movement looks like has been pioneered, both by previous generations of social movements, and even in more recent times with platforms and agendas put out by broader coalition of groups, like those associated with BLM.

In those platforms calls for transgender rights, global justice, reparations from governments which have benefited from theft and oppression of people of  color, and a broader multi-racial alliance against racism have been clearly articulated.

As one such site for the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL) argues, “In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

The BLM group continues by contextualizing the fight to define and control what the US should be is a project with global implications.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

In other words, the fight against fascism and white supremacists is a fight with historic precedent. We will continually return to this point, where the very worst elements of the US are highlighted by fascists in the streets and white supremacy in the government, and the very best is demonstrated by the people’s of the US who push for greater democracy, greater inclusion, and sustained fights for social justice.

We are not a species doomed to repeat the past. We are just historic actors in a period of time that have inherited a society. These issues will eventually be resolved. The US will, eventually, cease as a civilization (that is the nature of historic change). I just hope that the better angels of the US prevail in that time.

As we met in Riehle Plaza for the antifascist rally, a few of the locals spoke about the importance of fighting fascism and racism on all fronts. One couple even framed their justification for fighting white supremacy by explaining in very broad terms how “whiteness” was something colonial elites created centuries ago to keep people apart and control the masses. It was far from a perfect retelling of US history, but it was essentially right. There, in the streets of a small town in Indiana everyday people were voicing a fairly radical critique of US history.

Again, one counter march does not win any victories, but it is a reminder to me that a united popular front against white supremacy is not only possible, but in fact already exists. We simply must figure out how to utilize it for ourselves and future people. Our efforts will go a long way in defining the US.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild European Colonialism and Why We Need to Take Games Seriously by Ricardo Quintana Vallejo

Who would have thought that from a yellow-ghost-eating ball and a jittery Italian plumber video games would become a medium for complex storytelling (like Starcraft, Bioshock, or Mass Effect) and create worlds of such definition and creativity that would equal and surpass any animation studio?

  1. The Praise

An understatement: Breath of the Wild is successful. To play it is to live another life. It is eclectic, taking the best of the original Zelda games: their magic, the creativity of the puzzles, the need to collaborate with friends and strangers in the internet to solve them. And it has allowed itself to be influenced by others. The size of the world, the fragility and variety of the weapons, the side quests, they mirror Skyrim or Mass Effect.

The plot is not particularly nuanced. There is a protagonist, allegory of order in a western moral system, who faces, with the assistance of secondary characters, an antagonist, allegory of chaos. Like a Harry Potter that faces a Voldemort, Beowulf a Grendel, Elijah a Jezebel.

But simplicity is not the enemy of greatness. The Odyssey is about a man who is travelling home (and has some adventures along the way). James Joyce’s Ulysses is no more than a man who walks through Dublin one day. The beauty (and transcendence) of these works lies on their imagination, the awe of their descriptions, the pleasure in reading them, the complexity and newness of their words, how difficult they are to translate, etcetera.

BoTW has a simple plot, but the attention to detail, the texture of every tree, flower, monster, and character is unparalleled. It does not use words to create the world, but code, and it is some beautiful code! It is a monumental project. It requires an active reader to solve the puzzles in order to move the story along. It is not the same challenge as reading a book, but it is an engaging challenge nonetheless.

  1. The Criticism

BoTW is a metaphor of European Colonialism. The main character, a white, blue-eyed young man is destined to save the world. Like Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (1899)—the racist author of the all-round awful Jungle Book (1894)—Link has the burden to visit the most exotic and wild places of the planet because the inhabitants need him to save them. Like Columbus or Magallanes, he has to “discover” the world, “draw” maps and help underdeveloped peoples to find their way.

Link is the European “I” that faces the “other”. Thus, he finds, for example, the strict matriarchy of the Gerudo; the Gorons, a tribal mining society that appreciates physical strength above all; the Rito, who literally live on trees; and the Sheikah, keepers of ancient wisdom and inhabitants of pagoda-like houses. Link finds all these people of color, saves them, and then, at the end, goes back “home” to save the allegorical woman, who also cannot save herself.

BoTW establishes racial hierarchies and fetishizes the “other”, perpetuates the problematic symbol of the white savior who goes and helps the “third world” or, if you so prefer, the “developing world.” He then goes home and saves the women. Indeed, the video game cover alludes to Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting that has often been interpreted as an enlightened European man looking over a world of wilderness.

Video games do not exist in an ideological vacuum. And maybe the important question is not why BoTW sees the world from the perspective of a European explorer that finds underdeveloped peoples in need of civilization. Maybe the question should be: Why does a Japanese studio choose this narrative of world history as a relevant way to tell the story, and a commodity that will find many buyers worldwide? Maybe, European colonialism is still so natural and a discourse that feels so normal, that we will not question it.

Interpreting video games seriously enables us to understand in what discourses we are immersed. In this particular case, it allows us to understand that racism and coloniality do not always manifest as border walls or dead bodies on the shore of the Mediterranean, but can be subtle and, to dismantle them, we must give them the gravity they demand.

 

Follow Ricardo Quintana Vallejo on Twitter @realquir